Mar. 25, 2007

Monuments We Can Argue Over

On February 15th, the Globe and Mail Online reported that Estonia’s parliament voted in favour of removing a monument that commemorated soldiers from the former Soviet Union who died during the Second World War. Although the article generated over seventy comments from online readers concerning whether the Soviet Union played a beneficial or detrimental role in Estonia, not one person questioned the idea that a memorial could be torn down.

Amid accusations that this moves represents an assault on fallen soldiers, Estonia’s foreign minister has responded by arguing that since the memorial is not located in a war cemetery, it is a political monument rather than a monument that helps to remember the deaths of soldiers. The decision to remove the monument is also framed as an assertion of Estonian independence from interference in its domestic affairs, but again it is assumed that memorials are not permanent fixtures.

Does this mean that memorials are of our time? Museum exhibits and permanent collections undergo periodic updating, buildings are re-claimed for alternate uses, and even historical plaques, which are written to last generations, have in some cases been re-written in order to more accurately represent marginalized parties. Memorials, exhibits, and plaques all have the power to educate people about the past, and public historians should be vigilant in ensuring that accurate and balanced information is being conveyed to the viewer. It stands to reason then that a monument can be changed to include up-to-date information; however, the Estonian government is removing this monument as a political gesture and in so doing is depriving its citizens of an opportunity to reclaim and commemorate a challenging part of Estonia’s history.

I wonder what will go in the space where this monument stood. Will the government install a plaque commemorating how removing the Soviet monument served to affirm Estonian independence? Though I have little knowledge of Russian-Estonian relations and was unable to imagine an equivalent situation with which I could empathize, I believe it would be better for Estonia to leave the monument where it stands. Instead of removing the memorial, it could be re-dedicated to commemorate the violence that is experienced by both aggressors and victims during war. In this way, Soviet soldiers could continue to be honoured and Estonians could commemorate their occupation by and subsequent independence from the former Soviet Union.
Like all forums where historical discussions occur, memorials represent a space to argue, discuss, shout, coax, appeal, and move towards a consensus about our history.